Memorandum from the Hansard Society (M29)
The Hansard Society is pleased to be able to
contribute to the Modernisation Committee's inquiry on the role
of the backbencher and non-legislative time. We have considered
these subjects in a number of reports including The Challenge
for Parliament: Making Government Accountable, the report of the
Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny (2001),
New Parliament, New Politics: A Review of Modernisation
since 1997 (2005)
and A Year in the Life: From member of public to Member of
2. The conflicting role of MPs
Any inquiry that looks at the role of backbench
MPs, and the mechanisms that would allow them to make effective
use of non-legislative time, should realistically address the
political and institutional framework in which they operate. Every
MP must balance a number of competing roles, which include representing
the interests of their political party and their constituency,
as well as discharging their parliamentary duties. The absence
of a job description gives Members considerable scope to interpret
the role of MP as they choose.
The Modernisation Committee refers to the pressure
on Members to devote more time and energy to their constituency
role. The increased importance of the constituency in the daily
lives of MPs can be verified by the findings of Hansard Society
surveys of members of the 2005 intake (conducted in May 2005 and
Time: MPs are now spending
significant amounts of their time on constituency work. For example,
after a year in the role, the 2005 intake of MPs reported that
they were spending half their time on constituency work (49%),
with one MP spending as much as 97% of his time on this. Correspondingly,
the intake were spending 14% of their time in the Chamber, 14%
on committee work, and 22% on other work.
Priorities: In May 2005, the
new intake rated the importance of representing the nation as
a whole, representing their constituents and representing their
political party. More than four in five (81%) of the new intake
ranked representing their constituents in first place, compared
to 70% of the 1997 intake shortly after their election to Parliament.
By May 2006, this figure had risen to 90%.
Perceptions of the role: The
2005 intake ranked which aspects of the job they believed to be
the most important. "Protecting/promoting the interests of
the constituency" and "dealing with constituents' problems"
were regarded at both the outset and the end of the year as more
important than "holding the government to account" and
The Hansard Society found that an allegiance
with the constituency and the desire for re-election are instrumental
factors in shaping the constituency-focused approach of the most
recent intake of Members. The notion of a permanent campaign underlies
this focus on the constituency. As one MP told us: "Most
MPs will do what they think helps them get re-elected... Is going
to open local schools going to help you get elected more or less
than standing up and arguing a clause on the Climate Change Bill?"
Taking on casework and attending events in the local area is an
important way to build a network of supporters in the constituency.
MPs are now easily accessible to their constituents and working
practices have evolved to adapt to this change. They receive a
continuous influx of e-mail correspondence, with the expectation
that a response will be immediate. The impact of this has been
compounded by the advent of websites that monitor the response
time of MPs to such correspondence.
3. Parliamentary induction
There is probably less preparation, support
and training for MPs than for any comparable professional position.
A formal induction process is standard in many types of organisation,
but it is a fairly new initiative for the House Authorities and
political parties. Following the May 2005 election, the Hansard
Society surveyed all new Members asking whether Parliament provided
an adequate welcome for them. 68% believed they had, but almost
one-third disagreed. The House Authorities sought to improve inductions
for new Members in 2005 and are aware of the need to build on
this progress next time round.
Expectations as to what information would be
desirable during the induction process vary considerably between
MPs. The most recent intake of MPs commented that better co-ordination
was needed between the different departments of the House. Many
of them asked for more information on procedures and processes
(in relation to the Chamber, for example). In particular:
Many members of the 2005 intake professed
to having only a limited awareness of parliamentary etiquette
and did not feel sufficiently equipped by the induction process.
Some doubted that an induction process could ever fully prepare
MPs for the role, but there was much support for a clear guide
that sets out basic procedures and conventions.
Hiring staff and running an office
requires more knowledge and understanding about the administrative
side of Parliament, including seeing a typical set of accounts
for the year. Some Members highlighted the need for specific assistance
for those who had won a seat from another party, or were relocating
New Members are busy from the outset
and struggle to attend many of the induction briefings provided
for them or fully utilise the resources available. Consequently,
information provision and training should be ongoing in both the
short and medium-term and new Members must feel comfortable contacting
House officials for advice.
In 2005, there were clashes in the
timetabling of induction briefings between the parties and the
House Authorities. The Hansard Society believes that scheduling
clashes should be avoided in future. Political parties should
work with House authorities to provide a comprehensive induction
programme for MPs of all parties and Independents.
Political parties should further
develop their mentoring programmes. Members of the 2005 intake
were allocated mentors, but the mentors were often unsure what
information they were supposed to tell the new intake, and the
intake did not know what they were supposed to ask. The political
parties or the House Authorities may consider developing guidelines
of good practice for mentoring. This could also be a useful mechanism
for longer-serving MPs to reappraise how they operate. Similarly,
new Members often become reliant on other members of their intake
for information. The ability of MPs to learn from their contemporaries
should not be under-estimated and may be able to be harnessed
by the House authorities or political parties.
Several new Members expressed the
need for a longer break before Parliament returns after an election,
believing that this would allow a period of recuperation and the
opportunity to set up offices and familiarise themselves with
4. Knowledge of Parliament
Individual MPs should also bear some responsibility
for becoming familiar with Parliament. While an emphasis on the
constituency can steer MPs away from the House, it is also the
case that MPs are becoming fully-functioning Parliamentarians
much sooner after arriving at Westminster than in earlier times.
They tend to make their Maiden Speech usually a matter of weeks
after their election to the Commons and are very quick to begin
using the tools and processes at their disposal if they have sufficient
knowledge of proceedings.
As they become more familiar with Parliament,
MPs tend to change how they operate, so it is worth considering
levels of self-reported knowledge amongst MPs. After the 2005
general election, we asked new MPs how familiar they were with
parliamentary procedure. Half of those surveyed believed themselves
to be "somewhat familiar" with parliamentary procedure,
with only 7% believing they were "very familiar". In
contrast, 33% said they were "not very familiar" and
10% reported being "not at all familiar". With the rise
of the so-called career politician, it is too often presumed that
the newly elected are familiar with basic parliamentary procedure.
In reality, some new Members could not distinguish between standing
and select committees, whilst one commented that they had not
been taught how to vote in division lobbies.
A year later, the percentage of respondents
who reported themselves as being "very familiar" with
parliamentary proceedings rose to 15% and the proportion who were
"somewhat familiar" with parliamentary procedure was
60%. On the other end of the scale, 23% still believed themselves
to be "not very familiar" and 2% thought they were "not
at all familiar".
5. Impact of current practices on MPs
Following their election to Parliament, many
of the 2005 intake dismissed what they viewed as archaic procedures
as a distraction from the job in hand, but some did revel in the
customs and working practices of Parliament and others praised
its proceedings for facilitating high quality debates.
At the end of their first year as MPs, the 2005
intake was asked whether there were any aspects of Parliament
that they would like to reform. A significant proportion (71%)
of the respondents highlighted areas for reform, with comments
ranging from "power of patronage", "simplify the
legislative system", "the voting system is archaic",
"would like to abstain in person when necessary", to
views such as, "the late hours and length of days are counter
to any time with family", "boorish behaviour tolerated
in the Chamber", "axe the `men-in-tights' culture";
and even "dress codeno ties please".
More specifically, the Hansard Society found
evidence that current procedures could discourage backbenchers
from the most recent intake from engaging in the work of the House:
MPs reported that they would be more
encouraged to take part in debates if they knew when they were
going to be called to speak. In particular, members of the 2005
intake identified the hierarchical approach to selecting speakers
as a specific source of concern, and one which deterred them from
attending the Chamber. This helps to explain the reduction in
time that new MPs spend in the Chamber (from 24% in May 2005 to
14% in May 2006). Similarly, the repetition, padding out and over-the-top
courteousness of many parliamentary speeches were viewed with
dismay by members of the intake. The customs that dictate speaking
could dissuade MPs from contributing in the Chamber, as shorter
contributions were seen to be frowned upon.
Many in the Conservative party's
2005 intake indicated the need to ensure a better balance between
Parliament and the Executive. Their proposals for change included:
better notice of when statements will occur; less of a time lag
between questions being submitted and answered; a greater opportunity
for debates to be triggered by backbenchers or the opposition
when urgent issues arise; and creating alternative career paths
6. Backbenchers and select committees
The Hansard Society has frequently put forward
recommendations to enhance the role of MPs by offering them more
opportunities to place their concerns on the agenda and more incentives
to reconcile their roles in a manner that promotes the role of
Parliamentarian. The Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary
Scrutiny identified select committees as one of the main methods
by which MPs could play a more productive parliamentary role and
argued their potential lay in a number of characteristics. The
activity of the committees is not determined, predominately at
least, by party political considerations, and thus they allow
MPs to develop a specifically parliamentary role. Crucially select
committees provide an important arena for scrutiny where activity
is not prescribed by the Government's business agenda. Therefore
we have proposed a number of recommendations in this area:
Fewer than half the MPs in Parliament
serve on a committee designed to scrutinise and hold government
to account. In excess of 100 backbench MPs do not sit on any permanent
committee at all. The Challenge for Parliament recommended
that every backbench MP should be expected to serve on a select
committee. The report acknowledged that MPs should not be coerced
into this activity, and accepted that there are some MPs, perhaps
former Prime Ministers or senior ex-ministers, may be unlikely
to want to engage in committee work. However, the expectation
of committee service, which is the norm in most other legislatures,
should be established and may provide the impetus for a new ethos
to develop in Parliament.
Furthermore, the report recommended
that Parliament should become a more committee-based institution
and proposed that there would be one day per week when the Commons
Chamber did not sit to allow more time for Committee work.
Another reform, which directly affects
the relationship of backbench MPs with the Executive, relates
to the number of MPs on the payroll vote. The Hansard Society
has argued that the number of MPs on the payroll vote weakens
Parliament's ability to carry out its collective functions and
is a mechanism by which government exercises a specific form of
control. The Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny recommend that
each government department should have only one Parliamentary
Private Secretary (PPS), although it recognised that a few larger
departments might require more than one. Nonetheless, it proposed
that the number of PPSs should be significantly reduced.
7. Greater access by Backbench MPs to the
The Hansard Society has also put forward proposals
that would allow MPs to have more opportunities for short debates
on substantive issues. Such short debates are a common feature
of many European legislatures (for example, Germany and Sweden)
where an opposition party (or an equivalent number of MPs) can
call a debate on a topical issue or a matter of public concern.
The system obliges a government minister to attend and provide
an official statement. The debates are more substantial than adjournment
debates in that they cover important topical issues. In Australia
some time is set aside for non-governmental Private Members' Business.
This includes Private Members' Motions which are vehicles for
debating issues of concern which do not result in a vote and Members
Statements where backbenchers can make a short statement of up
to 90 seconds (or three minutes on certain other days). Arrangement
of Private Members' Business is the responsibility of a Selection
Committee of Backbench Members.
Another option would be for the Commons to experiment
with "unstarred questions", as used in the House of
Lords allowing for 90-minute debates, and also 60 minute "emergency
8. Public interest debates
The House of Commons could make specific provision
for "public interest debates" motivated by policy failure
or maladministration on a major scale. Many MPs regard representing
their constituency as their most important role and the constituency
experience is an important valve for alerting MPs to policy failure.
MPs should have the opportunity to call a short debate and require
a ministerial response on such issues where there is a clear case
of policy failure. The trigger for such debates would be a specific
number of MPs (maybe between 100 and 200) drawn proportionately
from all the parties. The cross party requirement would prevent
potential abuse by pressure groups or manipulation by the whips.
The system would effectively allow Early Day Motions to force
a debate, but given the number of signatures and the cross-party
balance this would only happen in a small number of cases.
9. Private Members' Bills
One important area that the Hansard Society
believe should be addressed when looking at the procedural options
open to backbench MPs relates to Private Members' Bills (PMBs).
We have long argued that the ability of backbench MPs to take
forward legislative proposals that may command the support of
both Houses is severely compromised by the arcane procedures governing
the system and, most importantly, by the dominance that government
is able to assert over the process. In fact PMBs are considered
to be, in reality, almost a sub-specie of government bill, such
is the control of the government in the process. The Hansard Society
has previously put forward proposals for change in this area and
would be happy to provide more details to the Committee.
The Hansard Society welcomes the focus that
the Committee is placing on these important issues. Following
our project on the experiences of new Members, the Hansard Society
is beginning a study on the role of MPs. This will consider how
MPs balance the competing demands on their time and assess the
changing nature of their work. It will look at how MPs perceive
their role and how they can be more effective in the role.
It is vital that MPs are given the knowledge
and the procedural opportunities to be effective parliamentarians.
The Hansard Society is happy to assist in any way that might be
helpful to the Committee.
30 Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny
(2001), The Challenge for Parliament: Making Government Accountable,
Chaired by Rt Hon Lord Newton of Braintree, (Hansard Society:
A Brazier, M Flinders, D McHugh (2005), New Politics, New Parliament?,
A Review of Parliamentary Modernisation since 1997, (Hansard
Society: London). Back
G Rosenblatt (2006), A Year in the Life: From member of public
to Member of Parliament, (Hansard Society: London). Back
Ibid, pp 30-31, 38-39, 44-45. Back
Ibid, p 60. Back
Ibid, p 61. Back